A Fitting Honor

TIME‘s Athlete of the Year, Simone Biles

This morning, TIME announced that Simone Biles has been selected as its Athlete of the Year. It did not take long at all for the backlash against the choice to begin, particularly amongst the so-called conservative online press. The Western Journal headed its social media post with “’How can TIME choose her over much more deserving athletes?” and linked to a piece by Jack Davis published just an hour after TIME’s announcement was made. And this is how he began his comments:

The old adage was that “winners never quit and quitters never win.”

But in 2021, quitters can be named Athlete of the Year.

This is a ridiculous and, frankly, stupid statement to make. It completely disregards Biles’ own statements made shortly after she withdrew from the team competition in Tokyo that she was experiencing “the twisties,” If you’re anything like me, you had no idea what that was exactly when you first heard it. If you follow the Olympics then you probably know now, but just in case, here is a definition provided in a July 28 Washington Post article by Emily Giambalvo—”the twisties”

describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

The same article quotes Biles saying, “I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself.”

Athletes are not machines that can perform on demand. I cannot imagine that anyone wanted her to dominate the Tokyo Olympics more than Simone Biles wanted it herself. The expectations were through the proverbial roof. I detest the term GOAT, but if there is one in the world of gymnastics, it is Simone Biles. As the commentators never tired of pointing out, Biles does skills that other gymnasts can only dream about doing; she has four skills named after her. That means that she performed those skills, previously unperformed by anyone else, at a major international competition. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics there was speculation that Biles might increase that number to five.

Biles has won 25 World medals in Olympics—19 of which were gold—and both of those numbers are the records for gymnastics. Biles was the first woman to win five World floor exercise titles, to win three World balance beam titles and to win five World all-around titles. Not the first to accomplish that combination, mind you, but the first to reach all three of those levels. She is a five-time U.S. floor exercise champion, five-time U.S. balance beam champion, six-time U.S. vault champion and seven-time U.S. all-around champion. She has seven Olympic medals, tying her with Shannon Miller for the most by an Olympic gymnast. This is not the resume of a quitter.

Why, then, such a negative reaction to TIME’s choice?

Well, back to Davis’s pitiful opinion piece, Biles withdrew from the team competition of the Olympics because “she was not sufficiently mentally focused on what she was doing and could have injured herself had she competed in her condition.” That’s a gross and, I dare say intentional, misrepresentation of the facts. While technically a true description of the twisties, the implication is clearly that Biles was slacking, not giving the competition the attention it demanded and her performance was suffering as a result.

Davis continued with, “Time [sic] explained that those old-fashioned views about athletes achieving excellence in their sports had nothing to do with its decision.” Again, the implication is that Biles has not achieved excellence. Might I direct you back two paragraphs for evidence of the absurdity of that suggestion. Was Biles the best athlete of 2021? Probably not. She certainly did not achieve the level of success expected of her in Tokyo. But it’s not like she was a slouch. She qualified for the Olympics, after all, and at the age of 24. Sixteen is considered to be the peak age for a gymnast. The Tokyo Olympics was the first time since 1968 that there were more non-teens than teens competing in gymnastics, and even in Tokyo the median age was 21 and the average age was 21 years 11 months. Even though every member of Team USA’s artistic gymnastics team in Tokyo was 18 or older for the first time since 1952, Biles was the oldest on the all-around team by three years. McKayla Skinner was on the USA squad as a specialist, and she is older than Biles by just over three months. The other specialist was Jade Carey, who was 21, and who ended up subbing for Biles in the all-around. But the other three original members of the team were 20 (Jordan Chiles) and 18 (Suni Lee and Grace McCallum). Biles returned to the Olympics for the individual balance beam competition and she took Bronze. The winners of Gold and Silver were Guan Chenchen (age 17) and Tang Xijing (age 18) respectively. So you’ll pardon me for calling the assertion that Biles did not achieve excellence nothing but hogwash.

Later, Davis wrote, “The article extolling her selection labeled those who believe dropping out of Olympic events partway through them is not the hallmark of a champion as ‘naysayers.’” Davis pointed this out derisively, but the statement is correct. Athletes cannot be demanded, or even expected, to be super-human. Many athletes—perhaps Simone Biles more than any—do things that the rest of us cannot even comprehend, much less imagine doing. But they are still mortal. They are still human. They still have bad days and struggles and doubts. And that does not even include the fact that doing Olympic-level gymnastics with the twisties is just plain dangerous.

Davis enjoyed pointing out that “many disputed Time’s selection.” Of course, none of the “many” that Davis quoted were gymnasts. As best I can tell, none of them is even an athlete. I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that Biles’ withdrawal from Olympic events—not her quitting—was not only justified but groundbreaking. Her teammate Suni Lee said, “What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.” 1988 Olympian Missy Marlowe said the twisties is “like a nonserious stroke.” 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who was only 14 at the Atlanta Olympics, tweeted that Biles’ decision “demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—’a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.” Dominique Dawes, who competed in three Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000) said that she quit during the 2000 prelims but was not allowed to do so. “[I]t was too much on me emotionally,” Dawes said. “However, I was not able to make that decision. It was very much a controlled atmosphere.” Nastia Liukin, who won the All-Around gold medal in 2008 and was a commentator at the Tokyo Olympics, said, “Thank you for creating a safer space for current and future athletes to unequivocally be themselves.” And 2012 Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber said “I never remember feeling like I ever got to make those decisions, even if I had wanted to,” continuing, “the gymnasts don’t have the voice, it’s up to the coaches. And I sometimes describe it as we’re just kind of like robots that do what we’re told.” Wieber, who is now the head gymnastics coach at the University of Arkansas, called Biles “a pioneer,” and Moceanu, who owns and coaches a gymnastics camp, said, “What she did was actually very brave and is a positive sign for the future of the sport.”

All of this would be sufficient to justify the selection of Biles as TIME’s Athlete of the Year for someone who feels such justification is necessary, but there is more. Biles was also one of four gymnasts who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September regarding the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Larry Nassar. While the other three gymnasts—Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols—were all outstanding gymnasts, with Raisman and Maroney competing in the Olympics, only Biles is still actively competing. She had to testify just a month and a half after the Tokyo Olympics—an Olympics at which she was representing not just the United States, but also USA Gymnastics. Of that, Wieber commented, “I can take some guesses and imagine that it’s probably difficult to represent an organization like USA Gymnastics for her, an organization that has failed her so many times and failed a lot of us. I’m just making assumptions here, but I can imagine that it, it adds to the weight of what she carries with her every day of having to represent that organization.” No doubt Wieber is right, given what Biles said in her testimony:

I believe without a doubt that the circumstances that led to my abuse and allowed it to continue, are directly the result of the fact that the organizations created by Congress to oversee and protect me as an athlete – USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) – failed to do their jobs.

Later, Biles said, “We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at the FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers.” As she also pointed out in her statement, Biles was the only athlete at the Tokyo Olympics who was abused by Larry Nassar.

Put the Senate committee testimony and the impact of the Nassar abuse and investigation together with everything else described here and Biles should be an obvious choice for Athlete of the Year, not a choice that is second guessed and mocked.

And yet, mockery and scorn is exactly what Biles is receiving. Not only did Davis write his absurd opinion piece, but The Western Journal published it. The Independent Journal Review then published it, too. So opposed are some to the Biles choice that one tweet that Davis chose to include suggested four other candidates for the recognition—only one of which is an American! It is true that TIME’s Person of the Year is not always an American, but it is, after all, an American magazine, so I think a Serbian tennis player, Australian swimmer and Russian tennis player should take a back seat in this discussion.

Far worse that Davis’s article, however, are the comments on the social media pages for The Western Journal and the Independent Journal Review. One charming individual, for example, said, “she’s a triple winner in the Victimhood Olympics – Female, Black and suffers from anxiety.” Several people commented that it was a “woke” decision. More than one called her a quitter, including one guy who said, “She quit on her teammates and America,” echoed by a lady who commented, “She let our country down and deserves no recognition!!” Not to be outdone, another lady said, “She is a failure and a crybaby who deserves nothing.” Someone named Joseph Casale probably topped them all, though, calling Biles the “coward of the year.”

One of the wonderful freedoms we enjoy in the United States is the freedom of speech, and that means that people have the freedom to say and write stupid things. That means internationally known companies and publications, like TIME, and a guy in front of a keyboard or pecking away at his phone like Jospeh Casale—or me. But I could not sit idly by and watch Biles’ recognition be trashed as some politically correct participation trophy. She deserves the recognition and I commend TIME for the choice. Should she ever (miraculously) see this post, I want Simone Biles to know that I do not think she let down her teammates or America…and I admire her courage.

Let’s Be Fair (Part 2)

Just over four years ago, in a post entitled Let’s Be Fair, I opined about the absurdity of the rules in Olympic gymnastics that allow only two gymnasts per country to advance to the All Around finals’ group of twenty-four, regardless of whether or not a country has more than two competitors score high enough to qualify. The prompt at that time was the exclusion of U.S. gymnast Jordyn Weiber, who finished fourth out of sixty gymnasts but did not advance because two of the three who scored higher than she did were her own U.S. teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. That post is one of my most popular ever written, partially I suspect because of the popularity of the Olympics and the number of people searching for stories about it at the time, but partially as well because of the recognized ridiculousness of the rule.

Here we are four years later and here we are with yet another prime example of the need for a rule change. Interestingly, it again involves Raisman and Douglas, but this time Douglas is the one on the outside looking in as Raisman and phenom Simone Biles took the two U.S. spots for the All Around finals. Douglas finished third. Yep—that means no one else in the entire field scored higher than she did in the qualifying round except for her own two teammates, but twenty-two other gymnasts will advance to the finals instead of Douglas because she happens to compete for the United States. And, just as was the case with Weiber, Douglas eclipsed a total score of more than 60, yet none of the gymnasts who will qualify instead of her did so. Douglas had a 60.131; the fourth place finisher was Rebeca Andrade of Brazil with a 58.732. To anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of gymnastics that may not seem like much, but the point difference of 1.399 is, well, huge. In fact, the gymnast who placed fourth—Andrade—and who finished eighth—Eythora Thorsdottir of the Netherlands—were separated by only 1.166 points, meaning there were five gymnasts squeezed within a point differential smaller than that by which Douglas beat her next closest competitor.

As was the case four years ago, the United States is not the only nation to have gymnasts shorted by this arcane attempt at fairness. Japan had the ninth, twelfth and sixteenth place finishers, meaning Aiko Sugihara (sixteenth) did not advance; Russian gymnasts had the fifth, sixth and twenty-second place scores, meaning Angelina Melnikova (22nd) did not advance; Brazil had the fourth, nineteenth and twenty-third place finishers, leaving out Jade Barbosa (23rd).

Writing on SB Nation, Rodger Sherman accurately sums up the ramifications of this rule, writing “The two-per-country rule will give a country besides the United States an opportunity to win a medal, which is important for the sport’s international popularity. But it comes at the cost of having an Olympic event which doesn’t actually reward the best three competitors.” He goes on to explain that there are similar rules in other sports, but his comparison is not, in fact, accurate. Here is what he says:

There are similar rules in almost every sport at the Olympics. For example, Brazil has the top three women’s beach volleyball teams in the world and swept the podium at last year’s World Championships. But they were allowed to enter only two teams in Rio. Similarly, China has the top four men’s table tennis players in the world and the top three women’s table tennis players in the world, but were only allowed to enter two players in each event.

As I stated, though, that is not actually the same thing. To restrict the number of teams, or even individuals, a country can enter in the Olympics is not unreasonable. After all, there has to be a limitation established somewhere or else the Olympics could easily become an unruly event with even more competitors than the ten thousand plus already participating, resulting in an overall event lasting longer than the current two weeks. But the gymnastics rule restricts the ability of those who have qualified for the Olympics from actually having a chance to win a medal even if they have one of the best scores in the qualifying rounds. The result is a cheapening of the competition. While the rule is intended to give more people a chance—read more countries a chance, primarily out of a desire to expand the popularity of gymnastics in countries where it gets little if any notice—the real impact of the rule is to increase the likelihood of the very best gymnasts winning the medals. Think about it. When professional sports leagues expand, there is a resulting diminishing of the talent in the professional ranks, at least temporarily. If Major League Baseball were to add two teams to the MLB next year that would mean fifty players who would not otherwise have been playing in the majors then would be. Does that give more people a chance to play? Of course. Does it potentially increase the popularity of the sport—at least among the cities that get the expansion teams and the families, communities (possibly even nations) of the players who now get to play? Probably so. It also, though, makes the best players and the best teams likely to be separated even more from the pack because the overall pool has been (pun intended) watered down.

In October 2013 Dwight Normile, writing for International Gymnast Magazine, addressed this problem like this:

The individual all-around used to be the centerpiece of a major championship. Eliminating potential gold medalists, such as [Phillip] Boy and [Jordyn] Wieber, tarnishes that title. Giving Wieber’s spot to the 25th-ranked gymnast doesn’t make much sense, unless that person has a legitimate shot at winning. So the question is, Should the worlds and Olympics be real championships, or are they merely participation sports? (Think kids’ T-ball, where everyone gets a trophy.)

This is the very point I made in Let’s Be Fair. Eventually, the competition will become meaningless because the desire will be to see everyone get recognized somehow—with the result being that all recognition is hollow. The result of that would be that interest in the sport would wane, because no one really wants to put time and effort into competing for something that does not really matter. The very best athletes are not going to pour their time, effort, money, blood, sweat and tears into a sport where their possibility of a meaningful prize is restricted by an arbitrary rule designed to give lesser athletes a chance in the big show whether or not it was deserved.

It has proven to be far more difficult than I could have imagined to find an official list of the twenty-four qualifiers for the individual All Around finals, but based on the results I found listed on rio2016.com for the qualifying round, there are four individuals who will compete in the All Around that would not have had the opportunity to do so if it were not for the two-per-country rule. They are Louise Vanhille of France, Carlotta Ferlito of Italy, Sophie Scheder of Germany and Vanessa Ferrari of Italy. Ferrari is the only one of them that scored higher than Douglas in any of the four areas of competition—vault, uneven bard, balance beam and floor exercise—besting Douglas by a half-point on floor exercise. Ferlitto is the only one of the four not to have at least two scores below 14.0, and she did that narrowly, earning a 14.033 in both bars and floor exercise. Scheder is the only one of the four with any score above 15, earning a 15.433 in bars. Douglas has two scores above 15 and her lowest was a 14.366. Scheder and Ferrari both scores in the 12’s, with Ferrari earning as 12.000 in beam. Douglass beat Vanhille, who had the highest overall score of the four with a 55.765, by 4.366 points.

It is worth noting, by the way, that success does not automatically breed interest. The Romanians have won a team medal in every Olympics since 1976 but this year did not even have a team qualify for the Olympics. Only Catalina Ponor, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, qualified. Now that is not because the Romanians had no one competing, but the fact that the best they were able to put forward was not even good enough to qualify for the competition could reasonably be construed as an indicator that Romania’s best athletes are not necessarily entering gymnastics. Cate Carrejo, writing on Bustle, says “Ponor is one of the last of a dying breed of Romanian gymnasts.” She cites “allegedly lying about age, doping, and a stripped medal” during the 2000s as reasons for the dying reputation of Romanian gymnastics, but she also discusses the country’s shallow bench in the sport. Ponor emerged from retirement specifically to try to help the team qualify, but that obviously did not happen. A Reuters confirmed Carrejo’s comments about the “shallow bench,” saying “a rapidly shrinking talent pool meant that when they were hit by another round of injuries, a lack of top caliber substitutes meant they again failed to make the Olympic cut.”

Back to the issue at hand, though, Gabby Douglas was, as one would expect from her, very professional in her handling of her exclusion from the finals. She said the rule was “fine” and said that she had enjoyed an “amazing ride” as the Olympic All Around champion for four years. Raisman, though—even before Douglas was excluded this year—commented on the 2012 situation excluding Weiber as “just not fair,” “stupid” and “the dumbest thing ever.” And while Raisman has found herself on the qualifying end of the equation in the last two Olympics, she suffered from the two-per-country rule in world competition and also found herself losing out on a bronze medal in 2012 because of the tie-breaker rule in gymnastics (rather than awarding the medal to both athletes). So she knows that of which she speaks. It cannot be easy for her to know that she has stood between a teammate and her chance at an All Around medal in two consecutive Olympic games, as both Weiber and Douglas would have qualified if not for Raisman besting them.

I am not a big fan of Wikipedia, and I make it clear to my students that it is not an acceptable source for research papers or any scholarly writing, but since this is neither I will utilize the site for this point. Wikipedia’s entry for the term “level playing field” says, “In commerce, a level playing field is a concept about fairness, not that each player has an equal chance to succeed, but that they all play by the same set of rules.” That makes perfect sense. No one would suggest that gymnasts—or any other athletes—should be allowed to compete under different rules or with different equipment. In fact, that is exactly why anti-doping rules are in place, to prevent any unfair advantage. But the two-per-country rule is not an example of fairness. Instead, it is patently unfair.

Equal opportunity is another buzz word that is often used in situations when discussions like this are being had, so let’s look at things from that perspective. Borrowing again from Wikipedia, equal opportunity “is a stipulation that all people should be treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers or prejudices or preferences, except when particular distinctions can be explicitly justified.” The two-per-country rule is, in fact, an artificial barrier that results in preferences and distinctions that absolutely cannot be explicitly justified. The desire to include more countries in the finals is not a justifiable reason for excluding the third best athlete in the world from having a chance while simultaneously allowing the twenty-eighth just because she competes under a different flag.

This is precisely why—to throw another aside into the mix—affirmative action is not equal opportunity but reverse discrimination. The web site legaldictionary.net defines reverse discrimination this way: “The unfair treatment of members of majority groups, often resulting from preferential policies enacted by the legislature, intended to remedy prior discrimination against members of minority groups.” In this instance (Olympic gymnastics) the U.S. athletes are the majority population and preferential policies instituted by the governing body of international gymnastics competition in an effort to broaden the base of the sport’s popularity are discriminating against Gabby Douglas (and Aiko Sugihara, Angelina Melnikova and Jade Barbosa).

Combined with my previous post on this subject, I have probably now said more than enough about the rules for Olympic gymnastics. In the grand scheme of life—and certainly of eternity—Olympic medals do not matter. But the principle espoused by those who created these rules is one that does matter for life and has very real implications. When some ruling group somewhere—no matter who they are or what position they hold—has the ability and power to, by fiat, state that someone who would, in a truly level playing field, have qualified, has in fact not qualified just because it does not fit their idea of the preferable or ideal scenario, we should all be scared. If that principle starts to go beyond Olympic sports to decisions about employment, health care and, in fact, life, then the consequences start to get exponentially more serious—and personal.

What too few people realize is that that is actually already happening.